The most famous Kurt Vonnegut graduation speech is the one he never gave: “Wear Sunscreen,” which went viral on the Internet in 1997 and a year later inspired the spoken word song “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” by Baz Luhrmann (yes, that Baz Luhrmann). The actual author was Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, of whom Vonnegut said, “What she wrote was funny, wise and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine.”
And yet, Vonnegut, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, was also a witty commencement speaker himself, especially in the last decade of his life, when he had stopped writing fiction. (He “retired” from the trade in 1997, after the publication of his last novel, “Timequake.”) Now, nine of these addresses have been collected in “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?” (Seven Stories: 124 pp., $21.95) — just in time for graduation season.
Vonnegut has been a particularly prolific member of the posthumous publication society; “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?” is the seventh book his estate has authorized, and that doesn’t count the three omnibus editions issued by the Library of America. (The most recent, “Novels, 1976-1985,” featuring “Slapstick,” “Jailbird,” “Deadeye Dick” and “Galápagos,” comes out this week.)
Still, the material here offers us a slightly different lens, a different window, extending across a wide range of time and geography, from Fredonia College in Fredonia New York in 1978 to Eastern Washington University in Spokane in 2004, and framed by not just Vonnegut’s sense of humor but also of humanity, his faith in our essential decency.
This attitude was not always evident in his later writings: “Albert Einstein and Mark Twain gave up on the human race at the end of their lives, even though Twain hadn’t even seen the First World War,” he observed in “A Man Without a Country,” published two years before his death. “… Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too.”
At the same time, he believed that “a writer is first and foremost a teacher,” which is why he refused, notes his old friend Dan Wakefield in an affectionate introduction, “to peddle cut-rate formulas for overnight success or blue-sky bromides to young people who sought his advice.”
For that reason, perhaps, the speeches in “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?” neither sugarcoat nor browbeat. “What other advice can I give you?” he asks one set of graduates. “Eat lots of bran to provide necessary bulk in your diet. The only advice my father ever gave me was this: ‘Never stick anything in your ear.’ … Don’t murder anybody — even though New York State does not use the death penalty. … That’s about it.”
What he’s saying is that we have to find our own way, that the whole idea of advice is something of a con. How much, exactly, can a graduation speaker tell us? Very little, it turns out. Still, there are broad strokes, broad implications. My favorite is this, from a 1999 address at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga.:
“I am so smart I know what is wrong with the world. Everybody asks during and after our wars, and the continuing terrorist attacks all over the globe, ‘What’s gone wrong?’ … What has gone wrong is that too many people, including high school kids and heads of state, are obeying the Code of Hammurabi, a King of Babylonia who lived nearly four thousand years ago.”
Here we see the heart of Vonnegut’s vision, his sensibility, boiled down to an anecdote. He goes on from Hammurabi to discuss Jesus, noting that his greatest legacy, “in my humble opinion, consists of only twelve words … ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Such an appreciation, it should be noted, is entirely secular; Vonnegut was not a religious man. But in this one statement, he suggests, we find “the antidote to the poison of the Code of Hammurabi. … Every act of war, every act of violence, even by a paranoid schizophrenic, celebrates Hammurabi and shows contempt for Jesus Christ.”